Carol Ozark arrived at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa uncertain of survival. A large tumor at the base of her brain had left her trembling and dependent on a walker.
For eight hours on Aug. 15, doctors probed and prodded and prepared the 75-year-old New Port Richey woman for surgery. They set a date.
Exhausted, Carol and her husband of 53 years, Art, left the hospital and piled into their 1992 Chrysler Fifth Avenue. She had been bugging Art to get rid of the greenish-blue relic, but he's frugal. Art, 79, grew up poor in Chicago, and even though he had a successful career in industrial sales at People's Gas, he has never forgotten.
So on this awful day that Art, Carol and their son Steve headed down to Tampa, it probably didn't come as a great shock that the Chrysler starting rattling. Art had recently replaced the ruined rear right tire with the spare, but he hadn't gotten around to buying a new one.
They made it to the hospital, but when it was finally time to head home, they found the tire had gone flat. Steve put some air in it and headed north on U.S. 41. They didn't get far.
"The car started shaking,'' recalled Steve, 50, a musician who runs a music talent agency in Lawrence, Kan. "We were riding on the rim. I said, 'Dad, we've got to pull over.' "
By chance, they happened to break down right in front of Dumas Tires in Lutz.
The rest of the story touches Art Ozark so deeply he has to pause to compose himself. To him and his family, it's a tale of kindness and trust by total strangers, an unexpected diversion that allowed some respite from crisis.
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Dewitt Dumas saw the Chrysler Fifth Avenue limp into his parking area. He watched as the three occupants struggled to get out. Carol, pale and tired, leaned on her walker and edged toward some shade. Steve had racked his leg a few days earlier and needed crutches. Art, whose knees have been bad for years, hobbled into the shop where several customers waited. It was almost 5 o'clock — closing time.
As Dumas said, "They all looked like they were having medical issues.''
He started the business in 1985 with his dad, Roy Dumas, who died in March at 73. It's a real family operation. Dewitt, 49, works alongside his brother Russell and sister Lesha Pfautz and her husband, Stan.
They quickly sized up the problem with the Chrysler. They didn't have the proper replacement, so they put on a temporary — but new — tire and told the Ozarks to come back at their convenience.
"It was like a pit crew,'' Steve Ozark said. "They swarmed on our car and got us on the road in 10 minutes. It was amazing.''
About halfway to New Port Richey, Steve asked his dad for the receipt. He isn't familiar with this area, and he wanted to get the address for the return visit.
"Dad didn't have a receipt,'' he said. "They didn't take a credit card or ask for any identification or anything. They just trusted us. Here we were, with my mom facing brain surgery, and we found people who did a random act of kindness. It gave us a good feeling at just the right time.''
A few days later, Carol went through another grueling day of tests at Moffitt. Once again, the family navigated up U.S. 41 until they found Dumas Tires. And once again, the "pit crew'' got them in and out quickly — even though the Ozarks arrived right at quitting time.
"Can you imagine?'' asked Art. "You know they all wanted to knock off for the day, yet they took care of us again.''
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Maybe it's not a huge thing. And, yes, Art Ozark did pay for the new tire and even gave $2 tips to some of the mechanics, "big money for Dad,'' said his son jokingly. Dewitt Dumas said he was glad they appreciated the effort, "but we treat everybody that way. We live here.''
Still, it warmed the hearts of some nice folks who called the Times to make sure you knew about it.
Carol Ozark, a crossword puzzle wizard, mother of three, rock of the family who has always been the caregiver, underwent surgery last week. The tumor turned out to be benign, but it will be some time before she fully recovers from its impact.
Art Ozark, who only recently gave up tennis but still rides his bike every day and plays bridge, looks forward to getting her back to normal.
He's even thinking about getting a new car.